I’ve just watched the final stage of this year’s Tour de France, and what a thrilling finish it was, with Mark Cavendish crossing the line first for an impressive sixth stage win of the race.
This was the first year that I’d really paid much attention to Le Tour as I’ve never really been interested in the professional road cycling scene before. However with the purchase of my first, proper road bike back in January and having now taken part in a couple of road events myself, I was interested to see how the professionals did it, in what is arguably the most famous cycle race in the world today. To this newbie spectator, a number of aspects stood out.
The physical performance of the riders is incredible and puts my own meagre abilities into perspective. To cover 100-200Km per day, nearly every day for three weeks, at an average speed that I can just about sprint to on the flat (never mind the 40mph sprint finishes) is almost unbelievable. The mountain stages, such as “The Giant of Provence” Mont Ventoux with its 13.5 miles of 7.4% average gradient, are challenges I’d be doubtful I could complete at any speed, so watching Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador dancing their way up these slopes at 15mph is impressive to say the least.
I shouldn’t feel bad (and I don’t); these are professional athletes with the best training facilities in the world and nothing else to do. How does your 100m Sprint time compare to Usain Bolt’s, or your 200m Butterfly compare to Michael Phelp’s ? I’m just a regular guy fitting cycling in around a regular day job, and I know I’m not particularly quick or fit even at that. But it’s still useful to see how far the performance scale extends.
Events like Le Tour are team events, no-one wins them on their own. Only a well organised team can provide the support that it’s lead riders require in order to win stages and overall titles. As I watched each day’s stage, the different tactics employed by the teams and individual riders slowly became clear. Drawing on my own limited experience I think I managed to understand why they were attempting each one and the theory behind why it might work. It was fascinating to see these tactics put into practice.
The route of Le Tour takes in some stunning scenery, and the helicopter based TV coverage showed it off to great effect. The valleys and villages of the Pyrnees and Alps are beautiful and the TV footage made me want to go cycle touring so I can see it for myself. I just need to learn French, I guess.
Tearing my eyes away from the cycling action and the scenery for a moment, the crowds lining the route as it passed through villages and countryside caught what was left of my attention. All ages were represented and they were five deep on both sides in places with barely room for the peleton to pass between them! Thousands camped out on mountainsides overnight to watch the race pass. Villages organised cycling related displays large enough to be seen from the air. Everyone was cheering and waving madly and more than a few ran in front of or chased after the riders as further encouragement.
Such widespread enthusiasm for a cycle race was great to see and stands in stark contrast with the UK, where roads are rarely (if ever) closed for cycling events and anti-cycling sentiment runs deep, even to the point where events have been sabotaged by disgruntled locals. Maybe I should learn French and move.
As I’ve said, this was the first time I’d ever properly watched a major professional cycling event from start to finish (more or less), and I was surprised at just how engrossing and exciting I found watching the 2009 Tour de France. I’ll definitely be watching again when Le Tour 2010 rolls around!
Did you watch the 2009 Tour de France? What did you think?